“Disneyfication, Myth, Britain, Vandalism and Medieval Civilisation have been made uncomfortable bed-fellows.”
In recent weeks the ancient site of Tintagel in North Cornwall has been the subject of controversy. The conflict is between the re-interpretation of the site by English Heritage and Cornish groups and individuals who say that the Cornish history of this major heritage site has been sidelined or ignored in favour of the mythos of King Arthur which has become synonymous with the site and attracts many a tourist to visit this part of the world.
The controversy is a great shame and may have been avoided if Cornish stakeholders had been more involved in the re-interpretation process from the beginning. Artistic interpretations of Merlin (a representation of his face carved into the hallowed rocks), a proposed giant sculpture of Arthur and other artistic representations from Arthurian Legend (Round Table, Sword in the Stone) have been the focus of conflict but so have other forms of interpretation and narratives presented at the site. The bridge (apparently representing Excalibur) has probably been the least controversial and most exciting part of the new developments.
Tintagel is English Heritage’s fifth most popular heritage site. Even before the former English Heritage split into Historic England (who now take care of the statutory and academic duties) and English Heritage (now an historic property charitable trust) EH was not best known for novelty in interpretation or presenting visitors with anything other than well-preserved ruins. It was EH’s style to remain faithful to the state in which they found and preserved an ancient site or property, perhaps maintaining a well-manicured lawn to set off the old stones or walls.
It is therefore easy to see how a breath of fresh air into this enigmatic site was both desirable and overdue. The castle’s visitor centre houses several of the archaeological finds from the site and has been recently redisplayed. Now sights are turned to the ancient monument and landscape themselves including the famed rock, hard to access by foot owing to erosion of the old land bridge (cue: Excalibur). Principally led by Kernow Matters to Us, but also supported by Cornwall Association of Local Historians and some Cornish politicians and other knowledgeable individuals, the frustration and anger at the changes to the site have made headline news.
The national press like competitions for bridges and they like a bit of historical controversy so the combination ensured that words such as Disneyfication, Myth, Britain, Vandalism and Medieval Civilisation have been made uncomfortable bed-fellows—to the detriment of the real issues that the Tintagel Controversy represent. Following the protestations against the new additions (some of which are already in place) and also the nature of the new interpretation at the site, various parties have come out in favour of the changes, not least the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, an art critic who occasionally lapses into historical comment.
…a challenge to Jones’s view on Tintagel, and indeed his knowledge of Cornwall, medieval history, the history of Tintagel and his belittling of Cornish historians.
In a piece written last week in response to the points made by those who are against the new additions to the site, Jones rallied his readers to revel in English Heritage’s changes at Tintagel to keep “Britain’s greatest legend alive.” (Read the full article.)
Those who follow me on Twitter saw that I got angry enough to provide a challenge to Jones’s view on Tintagel, and indeed his knowledge of Cornwall, medieval history, the history of Tintagel and his belittling of Cornish historians. It’s always difficult to do this without bringing even more attention to a pretty poor article. Even if it was intended to provoke a reaction, it is so full of holes that it would be wrong for this to stay on the internet without some kind of retort so those that are interested enough in the subject may have an alternative viewpoint to reference.
So here’s an essay of responses to everything that is questionable about Jones’s piece on Tintagel, medieval history and Cornish historians:
He said: “King Arthur forged our Britain.”
Not really. The medieval British Isles were fragmented, politically and culturally, and even if you did believe there was an historical King Arthur his efforts to create Britain can’t have been very effective. However, King Arthur has been a foundation figure in European literature since the early Middle Ages and a powerful persona set up in opposition to invading and settling forces including Anglo-Saxons and Normans—arguably more instrumental in forging the Britain we know (or at least the England we know today).
He said (image caption): “Tintagel in Cornwall, birthplace of Arthur – and mythic seat of England.”
England did not exist when Arthur was reputed to have been born some time in the fifth century (400s) (Cornwall did, though, known as Dumnonia). England did not start taking shape until the mid-tenth century when the fractious Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and fiefdoms were variously united under one king since the reign of Athelstan (924-27).
He said: “What’s wrong with carving Merlin’s face into a rock? Nothing, if you care about keeping Britain’s greatest legend alive.”
Would you carve a random Druid’s face into Stonehenge? Or a dinosaur into Dorset’s Jurassic coast? Probably not. Arthur’s legend has been doing quite nicely without needing a Merlin to stare out of Tintagel’s rock. But this kind of thing is always going to divide opinion, and as the artist Peter Graham commented, it is a “temporary intervention” as the wind will eventually erode it away. That’s my opinion as a heritage interpreter. Interpretive sculptures date quickly, add to the monumentalisation of historic sites, can detract from authenticity and often do not provide the kind of wow factor many assume they will. I am more in favour of using programming to bring drama to an historic site i.e. live interpreters, theatre, plays, performing artists.
He said: “Tintagel is a real medieval castle, ruined but spectacularly posed over the sea – but the main reason most people would make the trek there is a fascination with King Arthur.”
Tintagel Castle has a fabulous (and real) history beyond its literary associations with King Arthur just as other sites related to the Arthur myth such as Glastonbury (Avalon) do. Tintagel was for a time the seat of or at least strategically important to Cornish leaders, some of whom have been attributed as kings. In Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages the idea of kingship varied enormously and powerful kings were tolerated (loyal) petty kings of places that were not politically sensitive to them (the Isle of Man had kings at least in title until the role was absorbed into the Crown. Now Elizabeth II is also Lord of Mann).
The early 13th century was a significant time for Cornwall as wealth grew from trade and commerce and cultural life prospered as ecclesiastical intellectual centres such as Glasney College were founded (1216)—nodes connected to other major centres of thought, politics and culture when Cornwall was not an insular extremity of England
The current castle ruins relate to the period of Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, in the 1230s. Richard was the second son of King John (of Magna Carta fame) and courted legitimacy that mattered in royal European circles (he later became King of the Romans or Germans) and Christian immortality (he went on the Barons Crusade in the 1240s). You certainly get some of this history through EH’s new interpretation on slate blocks around the site and the addition of Kernewek (Cornish language) titles is a nice touch.
Tintagel would be the most obvious Cornish historical site to introduce the Kings of Cornwall to Cornish and non-Cornish visitors.
The gaining popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century retelling of the Arthur Story in his History of the Kings of Britain brought Tintagel to Richard’s attention and proved an alluring prospect full of the symbolism that excited him and would help him authenticate his dominion in Cornwall–a century later cemented by the formation of the Duchy in 1337.
The early 13th century was a significant time for Cornwall as wealth continued to grow from trade and commerce and cultural life prospered as ecclesiastical intellectual centres such as Glasney College in Penryn were founded (1265)—nodes connected to other major centres of thought, politics and culture when Cornwall was not an insular extremity of England but one with social and cultural networks stretching—by sea—to mainland Europe and beyond (some amazing archaeological late antique/early medieval finds from Spain and the Mediterranean at Tintagel corroborate this view).
Some of the Cornish kings themselves are shrouded in myth such as King Mark (uncle of Tristan of the great romance with Iseult) but others seem to have more historicity attached to them depending on your attitude to the contemporary sources that contain reference to them, from mid-fifth century Erbin ap Constantine recorded in the Welsh annals to King Geraint attributed to the early eighth century in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and contemporary ecclesiastical letters. A thorough shake down of our sources for this period is probably long overdue, but not for now. Nevertheless, Tintagel would be the most obvious Cornish historical site to introduce the Kings of Cornwall to Cornish and non-Cornish visitors. Come on, this is more than the story of grain stores and lime mortar that Jones jests about later in his piece.
He said: “I am impressed that Cornwall can boast 200 historians – the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus must be huge – but come off it.”
Here Jones refers to the Cornwall Association of Local Historians (CALH) but assumes for some unknown reason that the only historians worth taking notice of must work for the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus. Well you’ll be hard pushed to find more than those than you can count on one hand there, but beyond, there are a huge number of people who have studied, researched and written on Cornish history and even professional historians outside Cornwall who might count themselves in their number. I am not a member of CALH nor an employee of Exeter but I do have two degrees in History and have studied and analysed more medieval charters than most–so me included.
He said: “Arthur was already famous when Britain was just a minor island off the shore of medieval Europe.”
Yeah well. Go back to school. These were not the Dark Ages and while Geoffrey of Monmouth’s literary weavings definitely did launch the Arthur myth into medieval courtly circles Britain was definitely not a minor island off mainland Europe. See above, the English monarchy was deeply entwined with those of France and Germany. All the aristocracy, even the Cornish aristocracy of the 12th-14th centuries spoke French—you did if you wanted to get on in life. There was no fog on the horizon of the English Channel or Atlantic seaboard and people and ideas in mainland Europe and Britain were more connected then—by constant sea travel—than in many ways they are now. They went on Crusades together. They went on pilgrimages thousands of miles long together.
A note on the Dark Ages: Medieval historiography has eschewed this outdated term for 30 years or more. It is therefore disappointing that EH has carved it into a slate slab at the site. This is not good interpretation as it is going to perpetuate a very outmoded and unsubstantiated view of the past.
Romantic literature and dodgy undated woodcuts ≠ cultural history.
He said: “These historians who say English Heritage should tell the real story of Tintagel rather than focus on the “mythical fantasies” of King Arthur fail to grasp the nature of cultural history.”
I think it’s fair to say who here has failed to grasp the nature of cultural history. Romantic literature and dodgy undated woodcuts ≠ cultural history.
He said: “In many ways, the myth of Arthur created medieval civilisation.”
This is definitely a go back to (a good) school moment. There is no such thing as “medieval civilisation.” Medieval historians and archaeologists and art and literary historians have spent decades debunking the teleological and pejorative, origin of nations, 19th century view of the Middle Ages.
I highly recommend Prof. Patrick Geary’s seminal (and bloody good read) book, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe if you want a decent understanding of how medieval history was later (ab)used to influence popular perceptions of the period. However if you want to talk about medieval cultural history in Cornwall in the Middle Ages there is no shortage of sources if you look hard enough, from unicorns at St Buryan and beast-headed Evangelists at Gulval to the mystery plays written in Cornish contained in the late 14th-century Ordinalia.
He said: “The British may have invented Arthur, but Arthur in turn legitimated the idea of Britain as a great nation.”
See above. Anachronistic.
He said: “Arthur is woven into the landscape and identity of Britain, and we’re very lucky to have such a great global myth written into our rocks. People visit Greece to see the land of the Greek gods; in just the same way this is the land of Arthur.”
Yes, there are many claims to different stations in Arthur’s life around Britain—almost as many as lay claim to Jane Austen. Here is a pretty long list of locations associated with Arthurian Legend both in Britain and abroad.
I haven’t yet come across anyone who has travelled to Greece for work or play who has done so to experience the land of the gods—I think it exists better in the imagination and on film. Certainly if that is what people come to Cornwall for, we are not short of some of our own fabulous and rich stories of fairies, giants, monsters and other-worldly folk that make some of the Arthurian stuff seem a bit pedestrian. Go and find the giant’s heart at St Michael’s Mount.
He said: “English Heritage is evidently aiming its Arthurian reboot at families, and doing its bit to keep the mystery of the grail alive in the 21st century. I think anyone who really loves history, and wants a new generation to love it, should applaud their efforts.”
From an interpretive point of view, there is no better site to explore Cornwall’s post-Roman and early medieval history and archaeology than Tintagel. Who should have the final say in how this site is presented to the public whether they come as families, school visits or otherwise? English Heritage and other custodians have a duty and responsibility to treat the site and its communities with sensitivity and respect, and that means respecting and presenting the Cornish narratives of Tintagel (which also include plenty of Arthurian intrigue).
Archaeologists have already pointed out which elements of the developments at the site may or will be detrimental to the site’s archaeology. If this happens future discoveries may be lost to future generations of Cornish communities and visitors. English Heritage’s official PR and communications refer constantly to their visitors but there is little or no reference to their local communities. Ironic, considering the pledges and posturing currently contained in the UK Government White Paper and those of other stakeholders such as Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund that claim diversity, reflecting the communities they serve and working better for young people should be at the heart of all culture.
Cornish communities must be better consulted by those who are responsible for conserving and interpreting their heritage, and interpreters must do better to swot up on real Cornish history, legend and culture.
Did you know, the Cornish have been officially recognised as a National Minority in the same way as Welsh, Scots and Irish (and English in Scotland) since 2014, by the UK Government and in Europe? Public bodies have a moral and ethical responsibility not to ignore this. Cornish communities must be better consulted by those who are responsible for conserving and interpreting their heritage, and interpreters must do better to swot up on real Cornish history, legend and culture.
Consultation is a process of mutual education and ‘deep listening’ not a tick-box exercise singed [burnt] with cynicism. This is more than just showing pictures of different bridges to see what the very local population would like to see. These are hard and difficult conversations but they have to be had and resources to act upon them need to be made available to make these conversations meaningful, constructive and long-lasting.
The persistent erosion of public funding to support good research and expertise in heritage is squarely in the frame for blame here.
But, and it’s a big but, as a heritage professional that has developed interpretation and exhibitions for various subjects and sites over the last 16 years I know that you cannot please all of your audiences all of the time and that at some point some stories will take prominence over others to achieve coherence. A paucity of resources, manpower, expertise and time mean that you are often on your own trying to make sense of a story based on history or evidence that are hard to navigate and difficult to access to tough deadlines. The persistent erosion of public funding to support good research and expertise in heritage is squarely in the frame for blame here. In addition, protestations can sometimes be born from false information or base-less assertions that are hard to counter and very soon the situation gets toxic.
Involving communities of interest early will ensure that a broad church of ambassadors feel they have a stake in the stories that are told. This can only lead to better history and better interpretation.
Developing a narrative or set of narratives within the constraints of interpretive toolkits (word counts, artistic impressions where contemporary imagery is not available, signage, lack of provenance…) is quite a stressful process so I have sympathy with those that have ended up bearing the brunt of this conflict as it can make exceptional professionals lose confidence and faith in their abilities.
I hope that lessons have been learned and that in particular those national agencies that have a responsibility to interpret culture and heritage in Cornwall do so in the future with adequate consultation with their Cornish communities and with an acute awareness and respect for those narratives. Involving communities of interest early will ensure that a broad church of ambassadors feel they have a stake in the stories that are told. This can only lead to better history and better interpretation.